Tyrone’s Conor McKenna (left) and Darren McCurry celebrate after their team beat Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-finals. Photo: Daire Brennan / Sportsfile
Conor McKenna of the bombers is tackled by Josh Thomas of the Magpies during AFL 2019
The heartbreaking thought of leaving home and going to Australia returning to resume training with the Essendon Bombers forced Conor McKenna to develop an unusual habit of leaving without telling his mother to avoid tears.
« It got so bad and it would me keep hitting that I have to return to this place. I told mum I was going to go and she would break down and cry and I would cry and we would all cry so I just started going without telling her, it was just like that, ”McKenna told the Irish Independent last year.
Given his six-year struggle with crippling homesickness after moving to Melbourne at the age of 18, McKenna’s AFL career is still footie fans with 79 senior appearances and a highlight role drooling, downright remarkable.
If he hadn’t been so persistent in making a name for himself Down Under, despite being an avowed « homeland bird », McKenna would have packed up much earlier and returned for Tyrone, but he was never one who did something in the conventional way.
Gaelic football was his « No. 1 sport » as a teenager – although he initially wanted to be a jockey, coaching with his father Pat while his cousin Liam is a professional jump rider – was able to If he couldn’t resist the opportunity to get paid while playing with the oval ball.
Mickey Harte tried to get him to jump, but he was determined. There were other avenues to explore. Eglish and Tyrone were never far from him, however. His intent has always been to make a triumphant return.
McKenna and Ray Connellan developed a strong bond as they tried to forge their AFL careers, and the Westmeath star insists the attraction of home and home the chance to put on the white and red of Tyrone was always in the foreground of his mind.
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“For Conor, the Grá was always pretty strong in the direction of home and football. He would always have said that no matter how good things were going, he wanted to be home at 25 or 26 to play with Tyrone, « says the former St. Kilda recruit.
» He saw how they made it to the All-Ireland final in 2018 and he would have seen that through his fingers. Obviously he wanted them to win but he would have kicked himself if they had won an All Ireland final. He missed it.
« Conor would always have said that his home is where he wants to be. He enjoyed the opportunity to play AFL and he was grateful for it, but coming home and playing football again for Tyrone was always the ultimate goal. ”Essendon did everything in his power to make him round 10,500km from home, and even allowed him to swap a soccer session with Melbourne GAA club Wolfe Tones for AFL training while keeping an eye on his efforts with a GPS.
He ran into the Management of the Bombers in hot water after playing a relegation play-off with Eglish at home in the AFL off-season two years ago – he scored a goal and helped them maintain their league status in Division 1 – but they leaned backwards to make him happy to the point of no going back.
It’s only been a year since he announced his « retirement » – despite the possibility of a comeback on a part-time basis has not ruled out if the S GAA’s plit season makes this easier – with Connellan outlining how Covid « put the nail in the coffin » « of his AFL days.
» When Covid came and he was removed from Melbourne and they all in blisters and lived like this, he began to really miss home. Then the real decision was made, « says Connellan.
» He thought it was time to go home and play soccer again. He had methods of dealing with it, but when Covid came and the year went for a shit, that was the nail in the coffin for him. When he got the false positive there and the reaction from the media, it made him think, ‘Jesus, I’m coming out of here, this is toxic at this stage’. «
McKenna had close friends with teammates like Jayden Laverde and Paddy Ambrose and influential trainer Dan Jordan closed, but the timing was right and he hit the ground running straight away.
Red Hand colleague Niall Sludden recalls playing up against McKenna at club level during one of his many stays in Ulster and longing to share a Tyrone locker room with him at some point, and he didn’t have to wait long.
“It’s great to have him back. I also just screamed a little. I knew him a little. I had trained with him on International Rules a couple of times. I always looked at him, he’s over there in Australia, but at the end of the day he always felt like a Tyrone man and a Tyrone guy, ”says Sludden. “I remember playing a challenge game against him. We came to Eglish in the rain. I remember thinking, ‘Jesus, I would like him back for Tyrone and everything.’ Then he came back. It was a huge step up for the team. ”
There were no guarantees that things would come home when he changed codes, but McKenna delivered some sensational league ads at full speed than him last winter Tyrone, with the smoothest transitions back to the round ball, showed what they were missing.
“You don’t have to be a genius to see the man is talented. He turned to a sport he’d never played before and looked like he’d played all his life, and he just got home and started the same thing again, « says Connellan.
-Year-old was the match winner in the epic semi-final loss to Kerry 14 days ago across Ireland and scored two cool goals. While there are no doubts about his class, Connellan prefers to highlight his wild work ethic as a standout feature.
« He’s a very happy guy, he wouldn’t stress too much and he’s pretty relaxed, but he is works terribly hard. For the first goal on the last day he ran a lot without getting the ball. Then he was gassed when he came in front of the goal and finished it anyway, « he says.
» At the second goal, he was standing at the back post when Tyrone turned the ball over and it was just a belly run at the other end of the It’s pure hard work that gets him into these positions and he then has the skills to back it up. He’s only getting better over the years now and I’m not surprised at what he’s done so far. I knew always that he would take it pretty quickly. ”
The pinch of flair and freestyle football he brings to the table for Tyrone is just one of the ingredients the 25-year-old has, and Connellan admits that some birds just can’t be caged.
« He’s a little crazy and a little wild, » he jokes. « That fits his football, he can do anything at any time and makes him unpredictable and dangerous as a footballer. That was one thing the Aussies loved about him.
« The Austral game ian Rules is very structured and you learn to play it so well that it sometimes trains a player’s natural talent. When Conor walked by, they basically just said, « Do what you want and let’s see what you can ».
« I remember one time he saw him throw a ball in the. » MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) back pocket for Essendon.
« Next, Conor just runs right through the ground, running around people and you’re wondering where he’s going and they ended up shooting out a goal He’s like that in football too, he takes things in.
« He does things that people don’t really expect, which is a good thing and a lot of the best players in the country are a bit like that now. David Clifford could Do something similar. He can take the ball out 21 yards and stick it in the top corner. You’re off the hook. «
The main message from the famous parable of » The Prodigal Son « is that you are welcomed with open arms no matter how far one has gone, and McKenna was surely loved only with love by the Tyrone believers e welcomed.
Since Tadhg Kennelly returned from Australia to help Kerry get the All Ireland Awards in 2009, someone has had such a seismic effect that has come from the left corner and McKenna will be following in the UK’s footsteps today at the biggest GAA stage.
« These are the games I came home from Australia to play, » McKenna said in preparation for beating Kerry during it gives a real sense of unfinished business today at Croke Park in more ways than one.
McKenna left the house after leading a final loss to none other than Mayo than Stephen Coen as captain of the Tyrone Minors in 2013, Diarmuid O’Connor and Conor Loftus stood in the opposite corner.
How cute would it be to finally turn the tables eight years later and crown one of the biggest returns in GAA history?
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